Plenty of movies try to surprise the audience with twists and turns, but the best twist endings can change the way you see an entire film. Whether it's a supposedly heroic character being revealed as a villain, a startling revelation about the film's reality, or the unexpected manner in which a mystery is solved, a good twist can turn a great movie into a certified classic.
Of course, not all twists are created equal. Plenty of bad movie twists have baffled audiences over the years. There have also been some so influential they not only impacted the movies in which they appeared but future movies as well. The hallmarks of a monumentally good twist are unpredictability and the addition of depth or relevance to the plot, both of which lead the viewer to rewatch the film to savor the set-up to the big reveal more closely.
The most influential twists of all time aren't just cinematic parlor tricks; they've made a significant, long-lasting impression on cinema as a whole.
Unlike many movies, Psycho's plot twist doesn't come at the end - it's somewhere near the middle. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a secretary who embezzles money from work so she can pay off her boyfriend's debt. While driving from Arizona to his home in California, Marion stops at the Bates Motel. During a shower, a shadowy figure rips aside the curtain and slays her with a knife.
The brilliance of this twist stems from its transformative nature. The audience grows attached to Marion and her journey from the film's start; when she's dispatched not even halfway into the runtime, the viewer must reorient their focus - perhaps against their will - to the polite but disturbing motel owner, Norman Bates. This abrupt change of subject contributes to the film's terror.
Psycho was the first film to utilize a "false protagonist." Identifying the hero for the audience is a fundamental rule of filmmaking, and once broken, viewers may become deeply unsettled by the plot's ensuing uncertainty. Other movies would mimic this twist in later years; Scream, which offed A-list star Drew Barrymore in the opening scene, is a prime example.
Director Alfred Hitchcock knew what he had. As part of Psycho's promotional campaign, he refused to allow anyone entrance to the theater once the movie had begun, an effective tactic for preserving the impact of his devious plot turn.
Actors: Alfred Hitchcock, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, + more
Initial Release: 1960
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
In the final moments of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker duel in the central air shaft of Cloud City. Vader severs Luke's hand and attempts to cajole him into joining forces. Luke accuses Vader of slaying his father, which prompts Vader to speak a line that sent moviegoers reeling: "No, I am your father."
As the film ends shortly afterward, audiences had to wait three years for the release of Return of the Jedi to find out whether the claim was true, and if so, what repercussions it would have on the epic story. Before Empire's release in 1980, movie sequels tended to adhere to the formula of the originals. They were essentially do-overs, with minor changes in setting or casting. The Empire Strikes Back was different in that it's intrinsically designed as the middle of a saga.
It follows up on events from A New Hope, but also sets up elements that don't pay off until Return of the Jedi. The concept of an extended cinematic narrative was a total game-changer. The thought of making audiences sit on a cliffhanger until the next movie's release was previously inconceivable.
In this regard, Empire set the stage for franchises like Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which similarly utilized an extended narrative to encourage sequel viewership. The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games franchises also benefited from the trail Star Wars blazed. Likewise, imagining something like Avengers: Infinity War - which ends with half the characters getting wiped out - seems impossible without this precedent.
Actors: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, James Earl Jones, Alec Guinness, + more
Initial Release: 1980
Directed by: Irvin Kershner
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In Rosemary's Baby, an innocent woman (Mia Farrow) becomes suspicious of her neighbors. Over the course of the film, the audience realizes her misgivings are valid - her neighbors are all members of an evil cult, and they have chosen Rosemary to become impregnated by the Devil. At the story's end, she looks in horror at the infant she's delivered. The real twist, however, is that Rosemary walks over to the crib and begins rocking the child - a disturbing acceptance of her situation.
Although Rosemary's Baby is based on an Ira Levin novel, director Roman Polanski's artistic flair - evident in both the mounting sense of palpable dread and the ending twist itself - is what cements the film as an all-time horror classic. Despite Rosemary's revulsion at her devil-child, she acts maternally towards it, as though she knows resisting will bring about something even worse. Or read another way, she has fallen completely under the spell of her evil neighbors.
The influence of Rosemary's Baby is far-reaching. Despite being over 50 years old, it continues to inspire modern horror filmmakers. Director Ari Aster sold Hereditary as "Rosemary's Baby meets Ordinary People," and like Polanski's work, it ends with a character's apparent submission to an evil force. Alice Lowe's Prevenge and Jordan Peele's Get Out also owe a debt to the classic.
Actors: Mia Farrow, Tony Curtis, John Cassavetes, Charles Grodin, Ruth Gordon, + more
Initial Release: 1968
Directed by: Roman Polanski
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In The Maltese Falcon, hard-boiled detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) discovers the woman who hired him for a missing-person case is the party responsible for the subsequent slaying of his partner. She's also one of many people attempting to gain possession of an extremely valuable statuette. Given the detective falls in love with her during the complicated ordeal, the audience is invariably shocked when Spade rats her out to the police.
The Maltese Falcon is considered by many film experts to be the first film noir. While plenty of books utilized the elements of noir before the film's release, no movie had ever captured these tales as visually - nor as precisely - as director John Huston. With this single film, all the requirements of film noir were put in place: the asymmetrical shot composition, the use of high-contrast lighting and deep shadows, snappy dialogue, a femme fatale, and - thanks to the powerhouse twist ending - a downbeat perspective on humanity.
Dozens of other movies over the decades have utilized the template established by this celebrated film.
Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Walter Huston, Ward Bond, + more
Initial Release: 1941
Directed by: John Huston